Claudio Gentile is often remembered as the hard man of Italy’s World Cup triumph in 1982 but there is much more to the former Juventus player who became one of the best defenders in the world.
When one thinks of some of the greatest Italian centre-backs to have ever graced the game the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Bergomi and Fabio Cannavaro are probably the first names that come to mind. An unwavering defender, however, Gentile can also be considered amongst Italy’s elite defenders, despite his tendency to frequently commit unsportsmanlike tactics on the field.
Gentile was born in Libya in 1953, but moved to Italy at a young age and began his playing career at Serie B outfit Varese in 1972. After impressing in his first season with the side the then 19-year-old signed for Serie A giants Juventus a year later, spending the majority of his club career with the Bianconeri. Unsurprisingly, it was his time with the Old Lady under managers Carlo Parola and Giovanni Trapattoni, where he garnered the most success.
During Gentile’s 11-year spell with Juventus from 1973 to 1984, the formidable central-defender amassed over 300 appearances and won an impressive six league titles, two domestic cups, one UEFA Cup and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. His move to the Torino-based side and his exceptional club form, also coincided with the hard-tackling Gentile receiving his first call-up to the Italian national team in 1975, having caught the eye of Azzurri boss Enzo Bearzot.
Gentile also established one of the most revered defences of all time for both club and country, alongside the ever-reliable goalkeeper Dino Zoff, dynamic full-back Antonio Cabrini and sweeper Gaetano Scirea. The aforementioned players were an integral part behind Juventus’ domestic feats, as well as two fourth-place finishes at the 1978 World Cup and 1980 European Championships, before prevailing 3-1 to Germany in the 1982 World Cup Final in Spain.
Controversy rarely, however, evaded the player as Gentile was renowned for his intimidating methods and dirty ploys. While opposition footballers respected a man like Maldini, the same cannot always be said for Gentile. The Juventus defender was largely feared by his opponents due to his fiery temperament and no nonsense approach, in order to nullify the involvement of his opposite number. This was epitomised during the second-round match between Italy and Argentina at the ’82 World Cup, where the stopper was heavily criticised for aggressively man-marking Diego Maradona out of the encounter.
After Italy’s 2-1 victory over Argentina, Gentile responded to claims about his hard-nosed tactics on Maradona famously stating, “Football is not for ballerinas.”
Of course, this was not an isolated incident with allegations he regularly dug his nails into rival strikers, oblivious to the referee. Gentile was also never afraid of going to ground and committing sliding tackles in a bid to unceremoniously impede his opponents from scoring or causing threatening situations.
But for all of his negative exploits Gentile would employ, he was an excellent defender in his own right, a testament of the collection of several personal accolades. He was included in the 1980 European Championship Team of the Tournament, in addition to the 1982 World Cup All-star Team, following Italy’s first World Cup triumph in 44 years.
Gentile’s retirement from the national team in 1984, in the end he was capped 71 times, coincided with his departure from Juventus, as the 31-year-old’s career was slowly winding down. He decided to embark on a three-year stint with Fiorentina, making over 60 appearances.
His move to the Viola did not yield any silverware and the pragmatic centre-half left the Tuscan club to join Piacenza in the Serie B for the 1987-88 season, turning out to be his final campaign as a professional footballer.
The decision to pull the pin on a highly decorated, yet equally contentious career due to his uncompromising style of playing the game, makes Gentile a rather unique commodity.
The proverbial saying of playing ‘hard, but fair’ only partially applies to Gentile who certainly played the game ‘hard’, in a tenacious manner, but on a number of instances was not ‘fair’ in his attempts to conquer his opponents.
Consequently, given his destructive history, it is perhaps this reason why Gentile is not spoken in as high regard or in the same breathe as the likes of Maldini, Baresi, Bergomi and Cannavaro.
Nevertheless, he was a true warrior on the pitch.